The term “self-care” is ubiquitous these days. You probably know that you should do more of it more often. But, what exactly does that mean? Scheduling a regular massage? Taking up meditating? Shutting out the world (job, kids, responsibilities) and going on a retreat? With “self-care” so frequently used and vaguely defined, it can be difficult to achieve.
Let’s think of it this way: Self-care is the means by which you show up as your best self in the world. It is a powerful tool that not only nourishes you, but also those around you. Don’t let the “self” part confuse you; self-care can be the greatest service you give to loved ones, and can both ignite and inspire you while modeling empowerment to others.
According to an article published by the American Psychological Association (APA), “Self-care has been defined as providing adequate attention to one’s own physical and psychological wellness.” In other words, anything you do to sufficiently attend to your wellness is considered “self-care.” The word “adequate” is an important inclusion in the APA’s definition. The phrasing implies that not only is self-care about simply attending to your wellness, it also must be enough attention to address and maintain your health needs.
You can consider physical and psychological wellness your empowerment tools. These tools need to be regularly and sufficiently cleaned and maintained if you’re to use them effectively. Think of a painter who must clean his brushes after each use so that the next image he creates is a true representation of his ideas. If the painter didn’t take care with his instruments or only cleaned them every 10th time he painted, the next time he went to paint, the bristles would be hardened and gunked together, making it nearly impossible to represent his vision on canvas accurately. He would need to clean his brushes, allowing them time to dry and refresh before he could use them to create his next masterpiece.
The same is true for you. When your physical and mental wellness is gunked up with built-up emotional and physical needs, it’s difficult to represent your true, best self and show up in the world as authentically, powerfully YOU. However, when you maintain yourself by getting proper rest, eating in a way that makes you feel strong and vibrant, immersing yourself in environments that enliven and enrich you, and finding ways to tune in and engage in activities that feed your spirit, it’s like cleaning away all the muck.
Imagine a week when you’ve hardly slept, eaten lots of junk food, had little fresh air or time in nature, and had such a hectic schedule that you barely had any time to yourself outside of brushing your teeth. What a depleting week! You can imagine how you would have nothing left to offer yourself, let alone others. On the other hand, if you attend to your physical and psychological hygiene needs (think sleep, nutrition, emotional awareness, and pleasant activities) each day, you’ll be nourished and ready to step into life’s challenges as your best, most empowered self.
Do you remember taking the SATs? The preparation instructions always included getting a good night’s sleep beforehand and eating a satisfying breakfast on the morning of the exam. Let’s think of life as your SAT: you want to show up as your most alert self, ready to take on whatever challenge is thrown your way.
Oftentimes, we can get caught up in “taking care of others,” and use the spirit of service to focus on others’ perceived needs, disregarding our own. It turns out, taking care of others’ needs to the neglect of our own is actually a disservice — not only to you, but to them. Self-care can be the most effective way to care for someone else. When you show up in a relationship depleted, you don’t have your highest quality to give.
I have a friend who, by her own admission, is overly focused on meeting others’ needs and hardly regards her own. She works in the health care industry and throws herself into making sure everyone else is comfortable and tended to while she under-sleeps, overeats, and barely has time to exercise. The result? Although people notice her kind and giving spirit, I’ve also heard people complain that she’s inefficient — often taking a long time to get back to them or losing track of appointments. And her own health is poor enough that she frequently has to call out sick. Besides that, some people get aggravated when this friend takes over tasks they can do for themselves.
All of this outward focus leaves her depleted as she tries to give to others from an empty tank. Her lack of self-care causes her to make more errors, be less attentive and ultimately less available to those who would otherwise benefit from her support.
Oftentimes, the most effective way for you to show up for those you care about is to arrive in the room, relationship, or conversation as your best self. This means you must take care of your own needs so you can be present and available to see others with clarity and read the situation accurately. Engaging in effective self-care gives you the clarity to see when someone really needs you to step in and fix something versus when they would benefit more from less hands-on support and encouragement.
Showing up as our best selves also means recognizing that we each have personal responsibility and believe in one another’s ability to assume that responsibility. Let’s take the example of raising a child. When the child goes into different developmental stages, they must struggle until they master the challenge so that they can grow.
If, for example, you see that your first-grader is struggling with spelling, how do you respond? Do you jump in and finish her homework to provide emotional relief? If the answer is “yes,” then you’ve just robbed her of not only advancing in spelling, but also the knowledge that she can do hard things and that you have complete confidence in her to figure it out. If, however, you provide support and encouragement (which means your self-care tank needs to be full), without intervening when she does not need help, she will build a sense of confidence and competency. Enter empowerment!
Marsha Linehan, the psychologist and author behind Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), labels this skill “building mastery.” When you over-care for others, especially in the absence of caring for yourself, you rob them of this mastery-building experience. Instead, try modeling abundant self-care and show those around you that you have the respect and confidence in them to do things for themselves. In other words, lead by example and empower others with your belief that they can do the same.
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The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amanda Gale-Bando, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist trained in evidence-based, scientifically grounded therapies and practices (DBT, CBT, and mindfulness) specifically designed to help with emotion dysregulation, shame, and self-criticism and help people shift from surviving to thriving.